Broadcast once by the Light Programme late in 1959, Orbiter X was a relatively straight-laced serial inspired by then-recent scientific developments in the 'space race', which was at its most intense and confrontational. Running to fourteen episodes on Monday evenings between 28th September and 28th December, the storyline was based very closely on theoretical plans for an orbiting 'refuelling station' that would enable rockets to travel deeper into space than was then physically possible. However, this wasn't the only topical aspect to the serial; while it was carefully and diplomatically disguised with less contentious character and place names, there was a definite tinge of Cold War paranoia in the unfolding story.
A rocket carrying a team of experts who were due to supervise the construction of Orbiter X has gone missing, prompting Captain Britton and his assistants - more inquisitive than intrepid - to set off on a rescue mission. On arriving at the station's intended location, they are greeted by an unidentified spacecraft, and discover that they've been led into a trap; someone - who may or may not be from Earth - has plans for Orbiter X that go way beyond doling out a bit of additional rocket fuel. Brilliantly, the audience must have been as surprised by this as the characters were; the sizeable Radio Times article that accompanied the first episode cunningly only suggested that the series would examine the emotional and technological impact of working in a vacuum.
Produced by Charles Maxwell, Orbiter X was written by prolific radio dramatist B.D. Chapman. Previously a lead writer on Dick Barton - Special Agent, Chapman had deliberately devised the serial to appeal to a family audience rather than just flying saucer-obsessed youngsters, and saw the scientific plausibility and topical concerns as key to achieving this; indeed, Chapman half-jokingly told Radio Times that he was concerned some aspects might be overtaken by reality ahead of transmission. Hammer Films and ITC regular John Carson headed the cast as Captain Britton, with Barrie Gosney and Andrew Crawford as his assistants Flight Engineer Hicks and Captain McLelland; reportedly, the three wore makeshift space helmets during recording to get an authentic sense of change in breathing for scenes where they were required to put them on or take them off. This attention to sonic detail was shared by sound effects designer Harry Morriss, who created a set of around forty effects that could be combined in different ways to lend the serial a touch of variance across its lengthy run.
Orbiter X was never repeated, and was also wiped shortly after its lone transmission. Following that, the series was all but forgotten about, and until recently the only mention of it on the entire Internet was as general fifties nostalgia. At some point, a set of BBC Transcription Services discs of the entire series were discovered at BBC Enterprises. These were essentially vinyl records of BBC radio shows made for sale to overseas broadcasters and the fact that they survived is remarkable. Now they've been literally dusted down by Radio 4 Extra, and have proved to be a more compelling listen than perhaps anyone was reasonably expecting.
Far from being a creaky relic weighed down by overly polite voices and laughable 'futuristic' elements, Orbiter X is a taut and believable thriller, and enough time and technology have elapsed for its quaint sounds and equally quaint theories to blast off into their own esoteric solar system. It's a serial that rewards the small amount of additional effort and attention required tenfold, and if you blast it out from a tiny phone or tablet speaker, you can even get some sense of what it might have sounded like issuing from the 'radiogram' back in the days before Yuri Gagarin had even lifted one foot off the ground.